Thursday, May 31, 2007

SF, Fantasy, and the Sense of Wonder

Here is a quote from Russell Kirkpatrick's webpage (as linked from one of my favorite websites SF Signal):

"A generation ago we lived in a world where progress towards utopia was taken for granted. We believed technology and human ingenuity would overcome any obstacle. In this period science fiction proliferated. However, we’ve more recently had a rude awakening: people are asking ‘who benefits from all this technology?’ and are realising the wealth is not spread evenly. More, we have come to recognise the environmental damage we’ve done with our unthinking trust in technology. I believe the 1970s saw the beginning of a widespread public rejection of the ‘tech fix’, and this is mirrored by the rise of the fantasy novel, in which technology is absent or at least tightly prescribed, and the consequent decline of science fiction."

The comments by readers also is enlightening. Read on.

I have wondered about this for a few years now. I have wondered where the SF version of Harry Potter was. Where is the modern equivalent of Tom Swift? (Actually, a fellow writer is trying to fill that void now with his first novel.)

But, to continue, the sense of wonder in modern SF is, I think, missing. I may be wrong, here, and please correct me if I am. But back in the day, when Asimov, Heinlein, and others were writing about their future (our present), they envisioned flying cars, rocket ships to Mars, and other wonderous things. Well, we've lived through 2001 and I want my flying car. Moreover, I realize that I'll never see a flying car. So where did the sense of wonder go? Was it technology--inventive as it is--that killed the sense of wonder? Was it our knowledge of the limitations of technology that has driven wonder out of the realm of SF and landed it in fantasy? Is modern technology, with all its coolnesses (iPods, TV on the internet, etc.), the thing that killed the sense of wonder? Are we so jaded to realize that technology is not the end-all be-all?

I am developing a couple of SF books and stories set it two different types of universes. For one, I'm doing a dystopian future thing but with a new twist. But for the second, I aim to reclaim the sense of wonder that once existed in SF. I want to reclaim the sense of wonder John Carter felt when he transported to Mars or that any kid felt during the 1960s when they looked up at the moon and dreamed of walking on it.

What are your thoughts? Did SF kill the sense of wonder? Do we have the situation of the more we learn, the less the sense of wonder exists? How can we reclaim it?

Friday, May 25, 2007

My Life with Star Wars (or What have I been doing these past thirty years?)

May 25, 1977. I have no clue what I was doing that day but it was not standing in line to watch “Star Wars.” Actually, I can’t remember how long it was before I saw the movie. But I eventually did—at the Palm Theater in Sugarland, TX—and, like almost everyone else, it changed my childhood.

Oh, I expect my childhood would have still been wonderful but Star Wars just made everything appear in a sort of Technicolor. Suddenly, upon one viewing (and another and another and…), whole chunks of my imagination woke up. At one moment, space was something you got to by rocket ship, the next, you had TIE fighters, X-Wings, space freighters, and giant ships the shapes of flattened pyramids. And you had the Death Star. You had swords that were lasers and guns that shot laser bolts. You had robots galore. And the aliens. Wow, the aliens! And, for a boy like me, instant heroes that were more thrilling than the ones on the football field.

Star Wars changed everything for me. Just tonight, I watched the original version (not SE) with my five-year-old son. It was fun, too, because I still have my toys and action figures so we watched the movie with the action figures and the Falcon and the X-Wing close by. And tonight, 30 years later, this movie still gets me. My heart still beat faster as Luke “set up for his attack run.” I still got goosebumps when the Death Star exploded. I still loved it that Han shot first. It still gets me and I think it always will.

Now, the biggest criticism I have with Star Wars is the stuff Lucas cut out. Having read the novel a few times and listened to the radio drama, Luke’s relationship with Biggs is an integral part of his maturation process. I would have liked for Lucas to have kept the Tatoonie sequence in (where Luke sees the battle in space and then tells Biggs good-bye) and, especially, the scenes just before the Battle of Yavin where he meets Biggs again. Integral parts, to me.

And, in the years since the SE came out, I love the added material (especially the Jabba/Han scene) and the expanded Mos Eisley sequence. You add in the Biggs scenes and keep Han shooting first and you’d have a movie that would surpass TESB. Now, as an adult, TESB is a better film but Star Wars is still my favorite.

I’ve told this to my friends more than once. Of all the thirty years living with Star Wars, my favorite time is still the years between the first two films, after those chunks of imagination have been opened. There was no father-son issue, there was no sister-brother issue, there was no Emperor (although he was mentioned in the first film). There was just Luke, Han, Leia, and the others against Vader. That was it. And the Star Wars universe was limitless.

I remember ogling Marvel Comics issue #7, the first story that was not in the movie. It involved Han and Chewie and their band of space pirates. I remember devouring Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye. I devoured Brian Daley’s Han Solo at Star’s End. I devoured everything in print. There is something fun about having to rely on magazines, comics, and trading cards and not having an Internet with the world’s knowledge at one’s fingertips. It was like searching for treasure in every new issue of Starlog just to see if they had some new photo of Star Wars. It was getting those first action figures (mine was Kenobi because Han and Luke were sold out; it was also at a drugstore, go figure) and playing with them. It was the cool Sears Mos Eisley cantina play set with the special Snaggletooth. I even dug (at the time) the Christmas special that I had to see on a black and white TV in a hospital as we were visiting a sick relative. Sigh. It was everything.

Star Wars turned me on to instrumental music. I wore out my first copy of the soundtrack and had to buy it again. I also wore out my The Story of Star Wars record (the one with the movie) and that allowed me to be able to remember mundane facts like the trash compactor number (3263827). Now, thirty years later, I can merely listen to the soundtrack and ‘see’ the movie.

But there is nothing that quite compares to seeing these movies on the screen. Sure, it’s been ten years since I last saw these films on the big screen (the SEs came out in 1997) but it’s still magical even on the small screen.

The older I get and the more folks I meet, I find that Star Wars is a common point of reference. When I meet fellow fathers, Star Wars somehow comes up. Once that point of contact is made, it’s like an unknown fraternity brother has been located. It’s just that way. And I think it always shall be.

Nothing will compare to Star Wars in my opinion. The only thing that comes close (and it does come close, mind you) is the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Those films are almost a quintessential piece of filmmaking. But, then, so is Star Wars.

I wonder if it can ever be duplicated. I think not. It is too special. It is one of a kind.

What are your thoughts on what Star Wars has meant to you?

Monday, May 21, 2007

Reading Harry Potter

[Another repost from my Myspace page]

The week prior to my vacation to DisneyWorld, I was listening to the NPR show "Wait, wait, don't tell me" and there was a reference to Voldemort. Now, I knew enough about the Harry Potter universe to know who Voldemort is. I read the first book back in 2000 and watched the first movie back on DVD back in 2002. But, for some reason, Harry Potter fell off my radar. Why? I can't really say. I mean, it's right up my alley. But, for some unknown reason, I never continued with the series.

The reference to Voldemort brought laughter from the panel and the audience and a thought struck me: I'm out of the loop. I am missing a common cultural connection with millions of other folks. [I don't watch American Idol and miss those cultural connections, too, but that does not bother me.] I have kept up, vaguely, with the books of Harry Potter. I knew that book 7, Deathly Hallows, is coming out on P-Day, 21 July 2007. I knew the titles of all seven books and, well, I made a decision: why not read books 1 through 6 before 21 July and then be able to join in all the fun of reading book 7 with the rest of the world? Plus, I didn't want to know the ending before reading the entire series. You could say this is me jumping on the Harry Potter bandwagon and, well, you'd be right.

And, what better place to start the series than in DisneyWorld, the land of magic? Thus, I started re-reading Harry Potter 1 while in the Magic Kingdom.

About halfway through book one--about the time Harry found out he was a wizard--I remembered how much fun these book are. And I got riveted by Harry Potter. It helps that book 1 was around 300 pages. Blew through that one in a week. I already owned book 2, Chamber of Secrets, so I started it the Sunday after I returned from DisneyWorld. Blew through that one in a week, too. And, with book 2, the larger Potter universe began to be revealed. I was hooked. There was no turning back. In fact, there was even the question of why had I waited so long. Obviously, reading these books prior to 2007 was not when I was supposed to read them.

One of the best things about reading this series three months before the last book comes out is that books 1-6 are all in used bookstores. Within two days of my return to work, I had acquired books 3, 4, and 6. Book 5 was elusive—I was determined not to buy a new copy; don't ask me why but there is something exciting about trolling around in a used bookstore and finding exactly what you are looking for. I decided to go ahead and read books 2-4 and get book 5 when the time came. I'd settle for a new copy but hoped for a used one. Two weeks later, I found book 5.

Another thing that has enabled me to blaze through these books is the audiobook versions of these stories. Before I left for DisneyWorld, I placed all the audiobooks on hold from the library. When I returned, they all were available for me. Thus, I was able to read these books in the following manner. I read the novel itself at night. In the mornings, during my 50-minute commute, I would listen to the audio version. Ditto for the evening commute. Later that night, I had the fun task of opening the novel and flashing forward a good chunk of pages to find out where I left off in the car. Then, I would read the novel and be sure to end the evening's readings at a chapter head, making it easier to find my spot on my audiobook the next morning.

The results were impressive. I read book 1 in about 6 days (including the trip). I read book 2—each book gets longer and longer—also in about six days. I read book 3 in about five days. Now, I have about 200 pages to go in the 743-page book 4. I expect each of the last three books (that is, 4-6) to take about 2-weeks each to read. I do work, after all.

Another good thing is that movies 1-4 are out on DVD now. So, as I finished one of the books, I watched the film. It helps to solidify things in my head. And, seeing the actors age helps me remember that the characters are aging, too.

A couple of interesting things about reading a series like this over weeks with all six books at my disposal rather than the way the books were published, with years between books. The obvious one is that as soon as I finish a book, I can pick up the next one. No wait whatsoever. Pretty cool, that. To be honest, after finishing book 2, I thought "Well, now, I read those pretty quickly. And I have until 21 July to read just four more books. Why don't I read something else?" That lasted less than a chapter of the 'something else' until I put that book down and read three chapters of book 3. It hooks you, it really does.

It is also fun to relate to two of my friends who have already read all six books where I am in the series. One likes to smile knowingly and give me cryptic hints, just like Rowling. The other can't wait until "I'm caught up" so we can have a good gab session about what to expect in Book 7. I imagine that they are 're-reading' the books as I read them for the first time.

A word about Rowling: I am a writer. I have written my first novel and am now writing my second. Rowling is a fantastic writer. Her prose is rich with ebullient emotion. The characters jump off the page. And she keeps things so close to the vest that when a secret is revealed, it is a joy. And everything is so tied together. By the time I'm reading book 4, I *know* that nothing is by-chance. So I pore over every detail.

And, finally, a word about Jim Dale, the reader of all the audiobook versions. (One note: with my commute and my home life, audiobooks is my primary medium for reading books. I listen to a lot of them.) I don't think I have ever heard a better reader who digs in and gets behind all the characters with his voice. He inhabits these characters and this world bringing it all to life.

It's such a fun adventure. I know I'm going to be waiting in line on 21 July to buy my copy. I've already told my two fellow Potter fans that we will have to refer to chapter numbers as we read Book 7 at different speeds. We'll have none of this "hey, what did you think when this happned?" moments (when you have not read that part). I have it all planned out that way.

Literary Nostalgia

[I'm reposting this from my Myspace page.]

Recently, my family visited DisneyWorld and I have to tell you, it was a blast. There is no place else in the world where everyone can be a kid again.

While visiting EPCOT, I had the strangest feeling. While I walking around the Spaceship: Earth ride [that is, the 'giant golfball' at the entrance to EPCOT], I was overcome by the memories and feelings I experienced when I went to EPCOT in 1984. I remembered the 14-year-old boy who thought the future was then, now, in the middle of EPCOT. And, strangely enough, I remembered the books I was reading while on that trip: the Star Trek Logs (can't remember which ones) and Arthur C. Clarke's 2010: Odyssey Two. The feeling was strong enough that, when I returned home, I thumbed through my old copies of the Star Trek Logs and 2010. Again, I was awash in the old feelings of 1984.

(Incidentally, wandering DisneyWorld while reading the first Harry Potter book has awoken in me all the cool, wonderous feelings I used to have reading SF. I remember, even in 1984, thinking that Clarke's books 2001 and 2010 were sooo far away. Well, we've past 2001 and 2010 is only 2.5 years away. So, with all the information at our fingertips, what's left in the world to create a sense of wonder? That's a topic for a different blog.)

This type of thing still occurs to me now that I'm an adult. I listen to a lot of audiobooks especially when I'm doing yardwork. I can be in certain parts of my yard and remember which books I was listening to: there's the Mystic River Tree (Dennis Lehane) or the Hell to Pay Hedges (George Pelecanos) or the LBJ Shrubs (Robert Caro's Master of the Senate).

Has that ever happened to y'all? What are the books and memories associated with them?